Thursday, August 6, 2020
August 6, 2020: Military Massacres: Hiroshima
[August 6th marks the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that fraught moment and four other histories of U.S. military massacres.]
On an unanswerable question about the bombing, and how to reframe the conversation.
I’ve written hundreds of online columns over the last six or seven years, many of which have prompted debate (which of course is a good thing and a continual goal) and even vitriol (which is significantly less of both), but one of the most controversial has to be this Talking Points Memo column from five years ago, on the 70th anniversary of the August 9th, 1945 dropping of an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. My specific argument there that the Nagasaki bombing “was always intended to impact and destroy a much more overtly and thoroughly civilian population” than the Hiroshima bombing three days earlier still seems to me entirely borne out by the evidence and difficult to dispute. But my broader connection of that framing to debates over whether the bombing was necessary and legal and thus to the question of war crimes (both at the time and since) led to a great deal of angry pushback, both in the comments on that column (which are still visible if you want to wade in) and in emails sent directly to me (the angriest of which got quite nasty indeed).
If that was all the case for a column on Nagasaki, I can only imagine how amplified the pushback would be if I were to ask the same questions about the Hiroshima bombing, the 75th anniversary of which we commemorate today. And in truth, while I believe it’s important to question and analyze any military decision, especially one that results in more than 100,000 deaths among many other destructive and enduring effects, it’s also, specifically important to separate the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings when it comes to the question of necessity. There is of course no way to know for sure what would have happened had the US not dropped the bomb—what the casualties on all sides would have been like had an invasion of mainland Japan later in 1945 become necessary, for example. That hypothetical certainly factors into our debates over Hiroshima (and Nagasaki, although I would separate the two as I say and as I argued in that TPM column), but at the end of the day it’s a fundamentally unanswerable question, and one that could thus always be framed differently depending on what one wanted to argue when it comes to Hiroshima and the atomic bomb.
So how can we talk about Hiroshima without falling into the trap of such answerable and highly subjective questions? One key way to do so is to think about the bombing’s human effects and stories, which took place and demand our attention regardless of how we see the military action itself. And I know of few texts that better depict such humanity than Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras’s film Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). I wrote at length in that hyperlinked post about what that French film set in a Japanese city can offer specifically American audiences, and won’t repeat all that here. But on the bombing’s 75th anniversary, I will reiterate what I argue in that post’s final paragraph—that the film is particularly unique and evocative when it comes to the subject of memories, both individual and collective (indeed, I first encountered the film through reading the screenplay in a graduate course on memory with the great Professor Lyn Tribble). Whatever we think and argue about the causes of Hiroshima, the question of its effects—and the interconnected and perhaps even more fundamental question of its memories—should be a shared one to consider, today most of all.
Last massacre tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories you’d highlight?